The Young, energetic businessman had landed a good job in the capital of this rich developing country. The pay was $1,140 a month, but he could not keep the job unless he could get citizenship papers, something up to then denied him even though he was born here.
This is not an isolated case. For the ethnic Chinese and Indians who make up nearly half the population of this Malay-Dominated state, rights of resident and occupation are often hard to come by. The young businessman finally paid $5,900 in bribes to get the proper papers after he had met all the citizenship requirments. To get a non-citizen's work permit, he had discovered, would have cost more.
This is a time of quiet and prosperity for Malaysia, but with such ethinic divisions building up frustration, many people wonder how long it will last.
This country lies at a strategic point along the important sea lanes of Southeast Asia. Its stability is important to the United States, both because Malaysia is a non-communist nation close to the communist states of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and because it is a major supplier of tin and other raw material important to American industry.
After a resounding in a general parliamentary election last month, the Malay-dominated National Front Coalition that runs this nation of 122 million people seems to be in control of all the complex political feuds that Malaysians love. The communist rebellion that shook Malaysia in the 1940s and 1950s has been fragmented.
A light, "sweet" brand of oil much sought by gasoline hungry Japan flows out of well on the east coast of the peninsula that makes up the western half of Malaysia. The country remains the world's largest producer of tin and natural rubber and finds a healthy market for those products. All across America, Big Macs fry in oil extracted from the short, squat Malaysian palm trees that gro in neat rows along roadsides here.
Businessmen and politicians welcome the 7 percent growth rate wrested from the green jungles and mineral-packed hills of this former British colony. But many doubt it is enough to compensate for the deep racial problems created by centuries of immigration by India laborers and Chinese shopkeepers and miners.
In 1969 the stiff bureaucrats who run this capital city in the British manner were frightened out of their wits when angry Malays rioted mostly against their wealthier Chinese neighbors. About 250 Chinese along with about 50 Malays and Indians, died. The response of the government coalition then as now committed publicity to racial harmony was something called "the new economic policy." This plan of affirmative action was supposed to force greater prosperity onto the easygoing but increasingly unhappy Malays.
Universities began to reject many Chinese applicants in favor of less-qualified Malays. Foreign companies were pressured to appoint Malays to their boards and hire more Malay staff. A key promise was that by the year 1990, at least 30 per cent of the capital city would be in Malay hands. In 1970, Malays had only about 2 per cent. That figure has now climbed to about 8 percent, but at such a slow pacethat many believe the 30 percent figure can be reached on time only by a massive juggling of figures.
The small Malaysia armed force is as racially mixed as the country at large and trained in a relentlessly nonpolitical, British tradition. But many of the young officers, who in the past would have been sent to Sandhurst for training, are now going to neighboring Asian states like Indonesia and Thailand where generals have become accustomed to political power.
The army has been very important to the life of the quiet, cautious politician whose political skills brought last month's resounding mandate for the National Front. Prime Minister Datuk Hussein Onn fought as part of the British-trained 16th Rajputana Rifles in North Africa during World War II. He was then transfered to Dehli to do the staff work for the Allied campaign to retake Malaysia from the Japanese. To some Malaysian observers, he is not in a class with his father, who founded the United Malays national organization which now leads the National front coalition. But Hussein Onn's careful attention to political details last month routed the Islamic zealots whose opposition threatened to weaken the coalition.
He has tried to root out the official corruption that adds to the frustration of people like the young non-Malay businessman who had to pay so much for his citizenship. The Malays, many of them deeply religious Moslems, pursue an odd form of graft.
"On the lower levels, corruption doesn't exist," said one. "If you call workmen into fix a light fixture and simply offer them a drink, they'll feel insulted. They'll throw it back in your face." But a large company seeking a business license finds big under-the-table payments are expected.
This situation is not helped by the resilience of the old sultants who still serve as nominal chiefs for various states that make up Malaysia and who elect the king the ceremonial head of state. Sultans demand huge estates and other perquisites. They can still do some damage to democratic politicians because of the lingering Malay reverence for the old nobility.
Hussein Onn seems capable of handling, if slowly and carefully, the sluggish mix of politics and corruption. It is the religious issue that most frightens him and other politicians here.
Outraged Indians recently hacked four Moslems to death for entering a Hindu temple and knocking down statues of what the Moslems consider pagen Indian dieties. Islamic fervor has led others to throw television sets into rivers. Fifty young women withdrew from the national university recently because of the Koran's prohibition of the education of women.
Despite their control of the government and their position as the largest ethnic group in the country, the Islamic Malays still are not nearly as well off as many of their Chinese neighbors. "Religion is a response to things not going well," said one diplomat.